Sir Francis Galton

Date: c. 1850-60s
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Images


The British scientist Sir Francis Galton, 1822-1911 is considered to be the founder of eugenics and his 1869 book Hereditary Genius is the seminal text of that field. Inspired by Darwinism, Galton set out to prove that human ability was determined wholly by inherited traits, not external influences like one's upbringing (Galton himself was related to Darwin, which he considered as evidence supporting this theory). Furthermore, he feared that modern society was setting itself up for "degeneration" by passing measures that supported the sustenance of the less fit, those who would not have survived in more natural settings, and thus contradicting the principle of survival of the fittest. Before the 1890s, popular morality prevented Galton's ideas from entering the mainstream, but the increased political and social pressure exerted by hitherto subaltern classes helped fuel fears of degeneracy. This process was abetted by the works of August Weismann, a German biologist who promoted the idea that traits are inherited directly through the "germ plasm," and Gregor Mendel, whose work on inheritance was rediscovered in this period.

Latin American reformers were very quick to co-opt the language of eugenics in order to promote the interrelated social and racial changes that they considered necessary to the modernization process. Thus the idea of the germ plasm became nationalized and various Latin American countries promoted eugenic measures to prevent undesirable (and supposedly inheritable) elements from entering the national germ plasm, including alcoholism, disease, idiocy, and non-whiteness. Nevertheless, most Latin American eugenicists practiced a Lamarckian form of Eugenics, as opposed to the harder Mendelian version, which allowed that traits could be improved (and corrupted) by outside influences. Thus eugenic reforms often took the shape of public sanitation, education against alcoholism, and prevention of diseases, all of which could degenerate the national germ plasm. Nevertheless, eugenics sometimes took on "hard" aspect in Latin America, including such measures as racial whitening, mandatory prenuptial inspections, and even forced sterilizations.

Reference: Stepan, Nancy Leys. "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
CITATION: Sir Francis Galton, probably taken in the 1850s or early 1860s (labeled as "middle life" in source), from Karl Pearson's The Life, Letters, and Labors of Francis Galton.  Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, (December 22, 2008).